Finger pointing kicks off the second phase of the Grenfell Tower inquiry

“Any member of the public reading these statements and taking them all at face value would be forced to conclude that everyone involved in the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower did what they were supposed to do and nobody made any serious or causative mistakes.”


This was the damning summary of day one of the latest stage of the public inquiry into the fire at Grenfell and it came from the inquiry’s chief lawyer, Richard Millett QC. He did not hesitate in accusing the firms that worked on the refurbishment of indulging in a “merry-go-round of buck-passing”.

To many on-lookers, the participants’ detailed legal cases can easily appear to be a pretty shabby attempt to point the finger at others while defending their own position and denying any non-compliance or substandard work. Only Kensington and Chelsea council has admitted failings of its building control officers.

First impressions matter, and for the public at least phase two of the inquiry – which sets out to find out why the building was clad in flammable material and the reasons behind other fire safety decisions – has not begun well, with most of the parties involved saying it was someone else’s fault. 

Who did what during the refurbishment and in particular who was responsible for mistakes relating to the cladding

Expect a lot more of this – the whole process is expected to last 18 months, with construction firms coming under the most scrutiny between now and April when they will be asked who did what during the refurbishment and in particular who was responsible for mistakes relating to the cladding.

Already the contractor Rydon has said it delegated tasks to the architect Studio E and the cladding subcontractor Harley. Meanwhile, Studio E has said it consulted widely with manufacturers and the project’s specialist consultants as part of the design process. The architect also argued the regulatory system was not fit for purpose. For its part Harley wanted to make clear that it was not responsible for the selection of the cladding materials, and said Studio E had a duty to review its work on the cladding designs.

And then there was Arconic, the cladding panel manufacturer, and Celotex the insulation provider. The former asserted that responsibility for specifying its product rested with the design and construction team, while the latter argued that emails between the designers, contractor and consultants showed they were  aware that the insulation specified would fail in the event of a fire.

We have months of evidence and witness statements ahead of us, during which the inquiry will have to sift through an incredible amount of detail relating to the planning and procurement on the project, the contractual relationships, the design changes and product substitutions, as well as the changing roles and responsibilities of the key players. Sir Martin Moore-Bick in his opening remarks clearly feels the “very heavy burden of work” on his shoulders – one he shares with his panel of experts.

They have waited too long for answers already, and are rightly in no mood for excuses

The hope has to be that the panel will be able to wade through a mountain of paperwork and get to the truth of where the blame lies. The survivors of the fire and bereaved families deserve nothing less. They have waited too long for answers already, and are rightly in no mood for excuses.

The government too appears to be running out of patience with the construction industry, parts of which seem intent on getting around the rules – this week a Whitehall official berated developers that are deliberately constructing buildings just below 18m to avoid current restrictions rather than improve building safety.

Now ministers are determined to give the industry as little wriggle room as possible, planning to lower the height restriction for the combustibles ban to 11m while also announcing details of a tough new regulator under the remit of the HSE. Many would say this action is well overdue – clarity is urgently needed on the roles and responsibilities for building safety so that professionals are accountable for the decisions they make.

Buck-passing may be an inevitable part of a lawyer’s defence when disaster strikes, but it should have no place on a building project where professionals should have a duty to ensure the highest standards and protect life. The ultimate aim has to be to restore trust in our buildings and the people who design and construct them.

Chloë McCulloch is the editor of Building